It's old school vs. new school in VOL

bvanderbeek@modbee.comAugust 24, 2013 

If you ever want to see a snapshot that illustrates the growth patterns of the Northern San Joaquin Valley, just take a look at the member schools of the Valley Oak League.

Oakdale High School opened its doors in 1892, Sonora High came along in 1903 and Manteca High followed 17 years later and all three schools have been the cornerstones of their communities — seeing their towns through the Great Depression, prohibition and World War II.

Manteca's second school, East Union, opened in 1966 and for lack of a better term is the VOL's middle-aged member, especially when viewed against newcomers Sierra (1994), Weston Ranch (2003), Lathrop (2008) and Kimball (2009.)

It means half the membership of the VOL is less than 20 years old, with the younger schools built to specifically service the building boom at the time of their construction, the affordable housing-driving height of the Bay Area Transplant (BAT) surge.

The oldest three schools, not coincidentally, are the ones steeped in the most tradition, both in the classroom and on the athletic fields, and certainly are the schools with the closest ties to their communities.

"All of the traditional stuff the kids do is about displaying their pride and appreciation for being a Mustang," said Oakdale coach Trent Merzon.

"Our kids love being Mustangs and embrace this phase in their life that will be going by fast. They know that the time they get to play football is just a shooting star in their life. But what's for certain is that the Oakdale community adores Mustang football and the players and coaches adore the community in return."

Weston Ranch, Lathrop and Kimball are years away from welcoming their first group of athletes who grew up wanting to be a Cougar, Spartan or Jaguar.

So where are the traditions among the newer schools? They can be scarce, even as coaches recognize their importance in building and maintaining school and community loyalty and spirit.

"I think that it's important for us to get as many things as we can in place that we can all do and agree upon," said first-year Lathrop coach Steve Wichman. "The players have to have a lot of say in that to make it meaningful."

So what's the tradition at Lathrop High?

"We call it our Spartan Chant," Wichman said. "It's how we break all of our meetings, all weight lifting sessions and every practice. We get together and yell 'This is Sparta.' "

That's a start.

Actually, Lathrop has joined forces with Weston Ranch — another relative neophyte — to establish a new tradition. Starting this season, the schools will play for a perpetual trophy — a helmet painted half silver,half gold — in what they've dubbed "The Battle of I-5."

"There's nothing really that has started and we're trying to put roots in the ground here," said Seth Davis, Weston Ranch's first-year head coach.

Davis had recruited a coaching staff well-versed in the power of tradition. Twelve of the 14 coaches on the Cougars' staff were teammates 12 seasons ago at Manteca High.

So they know that the Buffaloes have an identity that extends well beyond the borders of the town. They also know that Weston Ranch exists primarily as a south Stockton housing development and it's a stretch to identify it as a town, at least one that includes the social trappings of an established community.

"We needed these kids to buy into something within the program," Davis said. "We tell them that we're not in Stockton, and that we're going to put Weston Ranch on the map.

"We know how some people take pride in saying that they represent the 209, so we made up our own area code. We're the 160 (read sixteen-oh) because there are 16 possible games in the season. Now we're not so foolish as to think that we're going to play for a state championship and get to a 16th game right away, but everybody wants to compete. Everybody wants to play for that championship."

East Union alums

East Union, as the second Manteca school, has spent nearly its entire existence in the athletic shadow of the Buffaloes. Fourth-year head coach Willie Herrera is reaching back to the roots of the program, when the Lancers were their most competitive, to grab a small piece of that success.

"We've brought back our white helmets," Herrera said. "East Union wore white helmets for about the first 15 years of the football program and those were the team's most successful years."

East Union's graduates also are pushing for tradition. At the start of every home game, two former Lancers hold up the alumni banner, which the team runs under, continuing through a gauntlet made up of the band's drum line, finally congregating in front of the student section, dubbed "The Red Sea."

Manteca's shepherd's stick

Across town at Manteca High, the Buffaloes' most interesting tradition is something a player stumbled upon, literally, about 10 years ago.

"In my second year here a player found a large stick on the field one day at practice," said 12th year head coach Eric Reis. "We all thought it looked like something a shepherd would use, so it became the shepherd's stick."

A senior took ownership of the staff (actually some kind of metal sheathing) that first season, and at the end of the year bequeathed it to a junior he thought would be a strong team leader the following season. The stick, now in school colors, includes the name of every team shepherd that has had the responsibility of bringing the stick to every practice and every game.

"There's a lot of responsibility there," said Reis, who added that two-way lineman Billy Sharmoug has the honors this season. "And it's just a random thing that we found that stick."

Sonora's ground crew

Current Sonora tradition has the players doing a lot of extra work, often at strange hours.

As part of the Wildcat experience, players are expected to weed and maintain the large "S" on the hill above the terraced grandstand, as well as keep those seats painted and emblazoned with the stadium's large block S. The work shift is followed by overnight camping on the stadium turf.

And then there was the midnight practice, which had the players on the field at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 12, the first day that football players in the Sac-Joaquin Section were allowed to be in pads.

"We run through plays, have a good time and then we all go out to breakfast," said Sonora coach Bryan Craig. "That's something we've done at our school at least since the late 1980s."

But one of Sonora's greatest traditions, indeed one of the Stanislaus District's top annual football events, appears to be in danger of coming to an end.

With the Wildcats moving to the Mother Lode League in 2014, this year's Week 10 meeting with Oakdale (Nov. 8 at Sonora) might be the last game in the district's best football rivalry. The schools are working together to find a way to continue the game in nonleague fashion, but it is in danger of not being played in 2014.

If the game is lost, don't worry about Oakdale being left short of standing tradition. This is a program so tightly intertwined with its town that Mustang scarlet and gold is never farther away than the next downtown storefront.

Oakdale: 'Mustang born, Mustang bred'

Oakdale football, from the ubiquitous "Mustang born, Mustang bred ..." team chant, to lavish tailgates for road games, to the tri-tip sandwiches sold at every home game, is a tradition unto itself.

"Sometimes you start and stop things, but cool things happen when you embrace the things of the moment, and some of that stuff sticks around and becomes tradition," Merzon said.

"We've started wearing black jerseys for home playoff games, and that's new, but every group has their own little things. The group that just left sang a song before they went on the field, and as stupid as that was, it built the team."

The Mustangs also have a very special tradition on defense, where they break the huddle with the word "Hog," in lasting honor of line coach and former athletic director Larry Hogwood, who died of a heart attack in 2001.

"They still do it and I guarantee there are kids who say it every snap that don't know what it means," Merzon said. "How long will that go on, I don't know.

"Things like that are an example of how sometimes we let the kids grab the steering wheel," Merzon said. "Now, they'll never be allowed to punch the gas pedal or hit the brakes, but giving them a grab at the wheel is a good thing now and then."

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